In 2007, Taku Hokoyama and I took on a 75-day, 3,100-kilometre canoe journey from downtown Winnipeg to Parry Sound, Ontario, via a northerly route that included the Albany River (detailed in my film Borealis).
I decided not to have lunch breaks along the way, instead lightly snacking during the day between breakfast and dinner. This allowed for efficient movement, enabling one-trip portages as we moved like hunted animals in the two weeks or so we had between our food caches.
In retrospect, we may have gone a little light on the calories. By day 50, I’d dropped from 180 pounds to 155 pounds, while Taku leaned out to 125 pounds from 145. During that stretch, we thought about food a lot, and savoured every morsel of every bite, every day. I recall sucking long and slow on each of the six squares of chocolate allotted per day—appreciating the flavour for as long as I could.
Every day had a sense of purpose and urgency as we moved steadily for 10 hours, covering crucial distance in order to get to the next food cache on time. Movement was survival—if we stalled out, we’d lose energy and have to tighten our belts even more. When we got to a town to pick up our resupply, we would walk directly to the freezer in the local corner store and devour four ice cream sandwiches each to take the edge off. It was fabulous.
On day 50, we stopped at a motel overnight in Smooth Rock Falls, Ontario—our first time not in a tent on the trip. We’d just spent a very physical few days dragging, paddling and portaging 220 kilometres up the Mattagami River. I glanced in the mirror of the bathroom and barely recognized myself. The shirtless man before me looked like he was composed of skin painted over lean muscle, sinew and veins. I decided after that to install lunches for the final 25 days of the journey. For some reason though, the remainder of the trip was never as good. The highs weren’t as high, the food never tasted quite as delectable. It became relatively easier, and therefore never quite as satisfying as getting by on the bare minimum. This isn’t because I’m a freak or a masochist—it’s simply because I’m human.
I recently listened to an interview with Sebastian Junger that lays out this phenomenon of people being happiest when they are engaged in a communal struggle for survival. A renowned journalist, author and filmmaker, Junger talks about humanity throughout history compared to us now. People are most content when they are working together in small, tribal groups to achieve simple day to day goals that are crucial to fulfill basic needs.
Life in modern society is far too easy—we don’t need to rely on each other anymore to work for the common goal of survival—food and shelter is just too easily available. We are vastly under-utilized and therefore unfulfilled. The result is a lonelier, more depressed society. It’s why Taku and I were happiest working together on meagre rations to get to the next food cache—we were simply doing what we’re genetically hardwired to do.
Junger describes being entrenched with an American military unit in a dangerous and remote area of Afghanistan, where everyone had to work together to stay alive. The unit were finally relieved of their duty after a year, but a curious thing happened. Instead of being overjoyed at being back in the safe nest of home, almost every man wanted to be back in Afghanistan, engaged in the daily communal task of survival. I feel much the same way after coming back from a long expedition. It’s great to relax and bathe in the afterglow of a successful trip, but it doesn’t take long before I look to the next journey.
Outdoor adventure is an outlet we can rely on year in and year out—an ability to strike out on challenging treks through the wilderness, working with others to cover the daily necessities and nothing more. With the ease of modern society doing more psychological harm than good, adventure is not just a luxury. It’s a necessity.